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A Stay by the River: Stories by Susan Engberg (Viking: $15.95; 247 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Laura Furman | Furman's second novel, "Tuxedo Park" (Summit), will appear in fall, 1986. and

In "Riffraff," one of 11 stories in Susan Engberg's second collection, "A Stay by the River," the narrator is a young divorced mother living alone in the country with her small son. Her lover is with her as well; he is an old friend, also divorced, visiting from California. Across the road is a family that in my region of the country would be called white trash. Says the narrator, "Screaming needs, I remember saying to myself one day; they all have screaming needs."

The doomed pack across the road are aberrant characters for Engberg. Her people are not in danger or even in much trouble. Her settings are most often Midwestern--not the rocky territory of Larry Woiwode, but a smoothed-out human landscape. Even teen-agers have grace and promise in Engberg's world, and most of her families are not candidates for the two-way mirror but for walks in the woods and a new appreciation of the stages of life.

In two stories--"Riffraff" and "Fourth Brother"--there is a hint of darkness. A rebellious, motorcycle-riding brother-in-law appeals to a barely married farm wife, and she decides to go with him out to California, away from the farm life that frightens her. In "Riffraff," the trashy house across the road burns, but the people are saved and the narrator's steadiness promises to pay off in a new love. Only in these stories is there a sense of cold black water beneath the ice upon which her characters skate.

The collection consists of 11 stories, and is in the main well balanced. In three, however, the heroine meets the crisis of the story by falling into a deep, dragging sleep, only to awaken with a new slant on her problem. The flaw is not in the use of this device in one story, but in its repetition.

Engberg is at work now on a novel, and it will be interesting to compare it to her short stories, which are leisurely and often without tension. They may, when collected, give a more pacific impression than the writer intends. Most of the stories are fine and convincing, yet one misses a compelling passion in them. Engberg is a good writer, and one hopes that her future work will be more full of the screaming needs of her characters.

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